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First Pakistani Operators Qualify for Bayraktar Akıncı UCAV

On 21 October, the Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturer Baykar announced that the first batch of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) operators have completed their training for the Bayraktar Akıncı, a twin-engine, 6-ton unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).

https://twitter.com/BaykarTech/status/1583525643630714881

Together with a group of Azeri Air Force and Turkish Air Force personnel, the PAF operators comprise of the sixth training term or class qualifying for the Akıncı.

This announcement basically confirms Pakistan as one of the launch customers (alongside Azerbaijan and the Turkish Armed Forces) of the Akıncı. In March, the PAF had heavily hinted towards procuring the Akıncı and the Bayraktar TB2 through one of its promotional videos.

The induction of the Bayraktar Akıncı will be a significant step for the PAF. It would give the PAF its heaviest drone at 6 tons and, in turn, make it the first power to operationalize a drone of this size in South Asia. It would also unlock a wide range of capabilities across surveillance, intelligence, and strike domains.

Background: Bayraktar Akıncı

The Akıncı first flew in 2019. It has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 6 tons and uses twin turboprop engines. The end-user can opt for either two 750 hp or two 450 hp engines. In terms of performance, the Akıncı offers an endurance of 24 hours; an operational service ceiling of 30,000 ft to 40,000 ft; and a top speed of 150 knots to 195 knots. The variances are likely due to the different engine options.

Arguably, one of the Akıncı’s most noteworthy features is its payload capacity of 1,500 kg. The Akıncı can carry a diverse line up of weapons, including both air-to-surface munitions and air-to-air missiles (AAM).

According to Baykar, the end-user can also configure the Akıncı with a multifunction active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and, in turn, use it for air-to-air operations. Like other UAVs, the Akıncı could also be equipped with a standard electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret.

The Akıncı is a Major Gain for Pakistan

Inducting a UAV/UCAV of the Akıncı’s size opens up new operational avenues for the PAF. These include, among others, long-haul intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles of various types, stand-off range strike, and, possibly, novel applications like drone-based airborne early warning (AEW).

None of the aforementioned roles would be new for the PAF. In fact, the PAF already has manned assets – such as the JF-17, J-10CE, Erieye, and others – for each role. Thus, the Akıncı in itself does not bring any novel capability the PAF already does not have.

Rather, with the Akıncı, the PAF is gaining the flexibility to deploy existing capabilities in possibly scalable, less risk-prone, and more cost-effective ways, operationally speaking. The Akıncı enables the PAF to amplify its existing capabilities. It can leverage a lower cost air platform (compared to manned assets) to set pervasive ISR coverages, deploy more assets capable of firing stand-off range weapons (SOW), and rapidly plug operational gaps (e.g., an AEW shortfall due to an Erieye going through maintenance).

The Bayraktar Akıncı opens up this flexibility through its size – i.e., its range, endurance, and payload. The Akıncı’s operators are all on the ground, so the PAF need not worry about crew fatigue while maximizing the Akıncı’s stated range and endurance. The mission operators on the ground can rotate and, potentially, collaborate with a wider assortment of specialists, such as intelligence officers, that may not have been able to accompany the operators if they were in the air.

In terms of ISR, the PAF can equip the Akıncı with EO/IR turrets and, in turn, use the drones to maintain a constant visual coverage of key areas of interest. The PAF could also configure the Akıncı with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) with ground-moving target indication (GMTI). With SAR, the Akıncı can produce high-resolution images of the ground. GMTI would allow the Akıncı to support with targeting of moving vehicles and personnel on the surface – and it can pair that awareness with a precision-guided strike capability.

The PAF can use the Akıncı’s additional range and endurance to either cover more area or maintain a more pervasive presence in an area of interest. However, if the cost of operating Akıncı UCAVs is less than a full-sized manned ISR aircraft, then the PAF could potentially deploy more of the Akıncı and, in turn, use them far more frequently and persistently. One should remember that Pakistan is also building its own satellite-communications (SATCOM) capability. Thus, it will look to use drones at beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) range. In other words, the PAF is certainly looking towards long-range drone utilization.

The Akıncı may also be large enough to support an electronic intelligence (ELINT) suite. In peacetime, the PAF can use the Akıncı to set a robust and far-reaching net to monitor enemy electromagnetic signals or transmissions. This could help the PAF build a stronger electronic threat library for its electronic attack or electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems across fighter aircraft, land-based systems, and other assets. It is worth noting that the PAF does not a known dedicated ELINT aircraft. Thus, the Akıncı might end up carrying that role, potentially alongside other drones.

From an ISR standpoint, drone-based AEW could also be of interest to the PAF. There is a scenario where the PAF may prefer using the Akıncı instead of the Erieye, especially near contested air space or high-risk areas. This application could tie into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). For example, it can work on getting the ‘Akıncı AEW’ to provide relevant targeting information to networked assets, such as fighter aircraft and, potentially one day, a loyal wingman UCAV.

Regardless of the role, the Akıncı will ultimately provide the PAF a much larger number of special mission-capable aircraft than dedicated manned platforms. Thus, the PAF will be able to carry out special mission roles to a far greater degree. Moreover, because the Akıncı is a multirole platform, the PAF would not sink its resources into an underused asset. Instead, the PAF can allocate the Akıncı flexibly based on the needs it is immediately facing – and not worry about the risk of misallocating resources (which a fixed manned platform could cause if it outlives its intended purpose).

Finally, the loss an Akıncı would not be felt nearly as much as a manned dedicated asset, like the Erieye. This opens the door to the PAF to use the Akıncı more aggressively and at a higher-risk level as attrition is more sustainable or absorbable. It would cost less to replace an Akıncı than an Erieye, for example.

The one area that is uncertain is whether the PAF would arm the Akıncı with munitions, especially SOWs, like the Ra’ad-series ALCM or Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK). The Akıncı is capable of carrying such weapons, yet using the Akıncı in that manner would mark a major change in how the PAF triggers a deep-strike role. While using armed drones to fire small precision-guided missiles against insurgents is familiar to the PAF, using a drone to deploy a 125 kg, 250 kg, or 500 kg munition against another country is another scenario entirely. Drones will eventually take on such roles, but it is unclear if the PAF will necessarily start doing so with the Akıncı.

However, some circumstances may push the PAF in that direction. The Akıncı could emerge as a relatively cost-effective way to add more platforms capable of carrying SOWs. With the Mirage III/5s aging, this can be a feasible way to rapidly close gaps (or enhance) the PAF’s strike capability. As a platform that deploys ALCMs and/or IREKs from stand-off range, the Akıncı’s slower speed would not necessarily be a weakness. So, as a purely munitions deployment asset, it could be valuable.

That said, the PAF likely has an eye on Baykar’s next marque product, the Bayraktar Kızılelma. This would certainly fit the ideal UCAV-based strike capability. It is unclear if Turkey would export that system, but at this point, the PAF is certainly bringing itself closer to Baykar by procuring the TB2 and Akıncı. On the other hand, a UCAV-based strike capability could also potentially come through a Chinese platform.

 

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